In January, Professor Jan Narveson and I debated whether libertarians should support abortion. Narveson claimed abortion only involves a mother’s right not to have a child, while I argued abortion violates the non-aggression principle (NAP) by killing babies.
In his response to my argument, Narveson claims embryos, whom science defines as preborn babies during their first eight weeks of development, are not “people.” Narveson suggests the reason is the abilities to think, desire, exercise one’s will, dream, etc. (hereinafter “think, etc.”) are not “within the reach of … embryos.” Narveson concludes that, accordingly, the NAP does not apply to abortion at this developmental stage.
However, Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (2nd edition, 2011) argues that an embryo, which begins as a cell called a zygote after conception, meets the scientific definition of a human being. As it has 46 chromosomes and full genetic material, this zygote is a male or female organism of the species Homo sapiens.
The embryo is genetically unique from the mother or father and has the inherent — albeit undeveloped — capacity to think, etc. After conception,[i] the embryo begins developing according to its genetics, a process that will end in the individual’s adulthood. The mother’s body and nutrients only provide a nourishing environment for the embryo to self-develop.
Also, as George and Tollefsen further argue, there are several moral problems with the claim that embryos are not people because their ability to think, etc. is not “within reach.” For one, infants do not have abstract thoughts, significant self-awareness, or motivations to act, and so do not think and desire in a sophisticated manner. So, depending on when Narveson considers a mental achievement to be “within reach,” his logic may permit the killing of humans after birth.
A second problem George and Tollefsen identify concerns embryos’ inherent but undeveloped capacity to think, etc. If there is a direct relationship between the developed capacity to think, etc. and moral dignity, then as the chart I have drawn below illustrates, there could be a social hierarchy of moral worth.
Accordingly, those with perceived “higher” moral dignity on the above line could abuse those with “lower” dignity.
A third problem George and Tollefsen identify is that even adults have many mental capacities that could take over a year(s) to fulfill. Examples include capacities to learn a new language, earn a doctorate, become business-savvy, and play the guitar. Thus, even adults can have completely undeveloped mental capacities, and so may not fully meet Narveson’s requirement for personhood.
In summary, embryos are “people” with the inherent capacity to think, etc. Moreover, as the moral problems with the “within reach” argument illustrate, inherent in embryos is the same moral dignity as adults. Thus, to deliberately abort embryos or unborn babies at any developmental stage is to violate the NAP.
[i] Identical twinning can occur in the third week after conception, which marks the origin of a resulting twin’s life.
Daniel Smyth is an independent researcher and cofounder of LibertyBlog.org. His articles have been in the Washington Times, American Thinker, the Freeman, and other publications. Follow @DanielSmyth7.